Industry Trends: Bonanza in the Bluegrass

The Kentucky Standardbred Breeders’ Incentive Fund has been a great success

story by Kimberly French

On Feb. 19, 2014, the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission (KHRC) released a statement announcing significant alterations to the state’s sire stakes program. Just five years later, the changes have yielded substantial dividends in the sales ring, on the racetrack, in the breeding shed and for the Commonwealth’s economy.

“It’s been really fun to see where we started from and to see how far we have come in such a short time,” said Jamie Eads, KHRC deputy executive director and director of incentives and development.

Implemented in 2005, the Kentucky Standardbred Breeders’ Incentive Fund (KSBIF) was instituted to bolster the horse industry. The fund receives 13 percent of the 6-percent sales tax paid when a stallion is bred to a mare within the boundaries of the Bluegrass State.

“The Kentucky Standardbred Development Fund (KSDF) is funded, in part, by a pari-mutuel tax paid by racetracks in Kentucky,” the KHRC’s website states. “The KSBIF and the KSDF, along with any other money contributed, appropriated or allocated from all other sources, fund the Kentucky Sire Stakes. The Kentucky Sire Stakes is administered by the KHRC. The Kentucky Sire Stakes is a culmination of a month-long series of preliminary races, with the biggest money earners getting a chance to compete in one of the richest finals in North America.”

Eight years after the KSDF’s creation, industry leaders and horsemen approached Kentucky Senate Majority leader Damon Thayer, who has long been a prominent voice for horse racing.

“In 2012 or 2013, Alan Leavitt, Ken Jackson and Marc Guilfoil came to me with some changes they wanted to make to the Kentucky Sire Stakes program,” Thayer said. “We were promoting the program, but we were not as successful as we had hoped attracting more stallions to stand in Kentucky. They came to me and said, ‘What we are doing right now may not be working, but we think if we make changes, we can make it work.’

“So, I listened to them and sponsored the bill to make those changes to the program which took place in 2014. They are the ones that deserve the credit, though, for recognizing the situation and taking the steps to improve it.”

All three gentlemen possessed the knowledge, credentials, passion and enthusiasm to develop a course to promote the Kentucky Sire Stakes program.

Leavitt was then chairman of the advisory panel, a KHRC member, proprietor of Walnut Hall Farm and a former USTA director. He has served the Standardbred sport in various capacities for several decades.

Jackson is an owner/partner of Kentuckiana Farms and the Lexington Selected Sales Company. He was an original member of the USTA’s Blue Ribbon Breeders Committee, a former chairman of the executive committee of the American Championship Harness Series, and is a founding member of the North American Standardbred Breeders Association.

Currently, Jackson serves as a member of the KHRC, the Bluegrass Sports Commission, and the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association (TOBA) Sales Integrity Task Force, and also represents the Standardbred breeders in connection with the KSDF and KSBIF. He is also chairman of the advisory panel for the KSDF/KSBIF.

Guilfoil has been around horses his entire life, as his father was a veterinarian and practiced equine medicine. He commenced his career as an intern with the Kentucky Department of Agriculture under equine program manager Rusty Ford. His first job in the sport was serving as director of racing facilities for the Kentucky Harness Racing Commission in 1988.

Honored in 2018 with the Association of Racing Commissioners International’s (ARCI) Len Foote Award for exemplary service and contributing to racing integrity, Guilfoil has served in a number of regulatory roles in the Commonwealth. In addition to being the youngest judge in harness racing at that time, Guilfoil was named as the executive director of the KHRC in 2016 by Governor Matt Bevin.

The main premise of the KHRC’s plans for changing the Kentucky Sire Stakes program was to transition the program from one in which the stallion must stand in Kentucky to one of mare residency.

“Beginning with the 2014 breeding season, the offspring of any mare who is boarded in Kentucky for 180 consecutive days during the year of conception will be eligible to the Kentucky Sire Stakes program regardless of where the sire of her offspring stands,” the 2014 press release states.

“For example, beginning with the breeding season of 2014 and thereafter, if a mare is bred to a stallion standing in Pennsylvania, as long as that mare is boarded in Kentucky for 180 consecutive days during the year of conception, her foal will be eligible to both the Kentucky Sire Stakes program and the Pennsylvania Sire Stakes program. Obviously, any foal sired by a stallion standing in Kentucky for the entire breeding season will also be eligible to the Kentucky Sire Stakes program.”

“The advisory panel recognized the need to grow participation, and along with the commission’s support, the regulation was amended to include resident mares,” Leavitt said when the changes were established. “It’s an exciting new direction for the program and provides an opportunity for our horses to have dual eligibility in multiple programs in North America.”

Dual eligibility has been essential to the tremendous growth of the Kentucky Sire Stakes program over the last several years. When the program began in 2014, only 69 yearlings were nominated. In 2019, 548 yearling nominations were received.

“The program changed to mare residency beginning with the 2014 breeding season,” Eads said. “This means foals born in 2015 could be the result of a stallion standing in Kentucky or a mare residing in Kentucky for 180 days during the year of the conception. You can see the uptick in yearling nominations in 2016 [390 versus 70 in 2015], which means the foals were bred in 2014 and foaled in 2015.”

Naturally, other areas in the harness racing industry have experienced keen growth due to the increased number of mares being bred and foals being born.

The most obvious impact from the mare residency program was the sport’s first million-dollar yearling, followed shortly thereafter by a second million-dollar horse, at this year’s Lexington Selected Yearling Sale.

Maverick, a full brother to Kentucky Futurity winner Greenshoe, fetched a cool $1.1 million. The colt, a son of Father Patrick – Designed To Be, was consigned by Kentuckiana Farms and bred by Al Libfeld and Marvin Katz.

Damien, a son of Muscle Hill – Danae, sold for $1 million. The colt was consigned by Cane Run Farm and bred by Fredericka Caldwell and Bluestone Farms.

“Ken Jackson and his partner, Bob Brady, invited me to the sale, and I was right there to see him in the ring,” Thayer said of Maverick. “It was thrilling to see and very rewarding for all the work everyone put in pay off so quickly and so well.”

The Kentucky Sire Stakes program has not just demonstrated success in the sales ring, as the quality of the racing has also vastly improved, with more stables sending horses to Red Mile to compete. For instance, the list of Kentucky Sire Stakes champions this year includes Greenshoe, who was also second in the Hambletonian, and multiple Grand Circuit stakes winner Bettor’s Wish.

“The racing has improved by leaps and bounds with full fields and nice horses,” Guilfoil said. “It is really an exciting time to be in this industry in Kentucky and we are looking forward to what the future brings.”

Another area of the Kentucky Sire Stakes program that has grown as a result of the mare residency program is the fair circuit.

“It’s not something people may think about immediately when it comes to the program,” said Eads. “But if you look at what the fair circuit was before to what it is now and what it is becoming, it’s pretty incredible. People are purchasing yearlings from breeders right here in Kentucky to race at the fairs, so that is another aspect of how the program has grown.”

On Sept. 10, the Kentucky Standardbred Development Fund and Kentucky Breeders’ Incentive Fund Advisory panel instituted some further alterations to the Kentucky Sire Stakes program for 2020.

Jackson, the committee chairman, said there will be increased purses for next year’s Kentucky Sire Stakes preliminary legs (from $30,000 to $40,000); the addition of a Bluegrass Series, a program similar to the Excelsior Series in New York and the Stallion Series in Pennsylvania; and a marketing budget for the fairs.

“Some of the changes we made we will be able to implement immediately, and some may require regulatory or statutory changes,” Jackson said in a story on harnessracing.com.

“We envision that series to be two legs of $15,000 each, and a $50,000 championship. A horse could race in the first (KYSS) leg, and if the connections believe that the horse couldn’t compete there, then at the time of the second leg you would have the opportunity to go to the Bluegrass Series. It would be the same time frame, just at a different level. This would give additional racing opportunities for horses. Pending approval, we’d like to hope that we can start the Bluegrass Series as early as next year.”

The purse structure for the fairs—$5,000 legs and $15,000 championships—would remain the same, but the advisory panel also discussed incentives to increase the number of stallions standing in Kentucky.

There is also the potential of the new facility, Oak Grove, which opened its doors on Oct. 18. Owned by Churchill Downs and Keeneland, the track will feature live harness racing as part of a $150 million investment as an entertainment complex.

Thayer sums up the success of the program succinctly.

“These are the good old days for Kentucky racing and breeding,” he said.

To comment on this story, email us at readerforum@ustrotting.com.

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